The publication of children's literature has come a long way since the early days when there was just a small quantity of material produced for a young audience. Children's publishing is big business now, and there are thousands of new titles made available each year. The immense number of choices to add to a collection makes it extremely important for those who are responsible for materials selection and acquisition to have access to selection aids that provide quality and fast reviews for titles of interest.
Limited library budgets mean that selectors have to be able to locate the best books available for their collection areas of emphasis. In addition, schools media centers and public libraries want to support the curriculum of the school systems they serve. There are many selection aid sources available, so it is helpful to critically compare these tools in order to determine which will provide the most benefit for the collection area of emphasis. Book lists are one choice, but these can become dated. They also may cause staff to believe that only items that appear on a list may be purchased before any other materials are considered. Books such as Anita Silvey's 100 Best Books for Children , are great for an overall view of classic children's books. However, the selector must understand what exactly constitutes, "the best."
For more current offerings, determining lasting value may be more difficult. In addition, patrons often demand material that has a popular culture nature. Youngsters are often interested in current sports and music stars and other celebrities. Such material is useful for only a short time duration, but it is expected in order to keep the community interested in library services. Catalogs from vendors, jobbers and publishers are another option for getting an overview of what is new and upcoming. Commercial online bookseller's websites such as Amazon.com also feature reviews from readers. The problem is that commercial interests want to make everything look good. Some people like advertisements as they give notice of what is out there or what is due to be published. Others do not like advertising heavy publications because of the fear it might sway reviewers in favor of materials from the publishers with the highest advertising dollars spent.
Three sources with a scope that focuses on books for school children are the elements of this comparison. Each source has a print edition and online version. The American Library Association publishes Book Links on a bi-monthly basis. This magazine is intended for educational professionals and school librarians with an interest in making classroom connections with quality literature. It is not a review journal; it is a topically themed bibliographical compilation. Library Media Connection is a magazine produced by a commercial publisher, Linworth. It is aimed more towards assisting School Library Media and Technology Specialists. School Library Journal claims to be the leading magazine for librarians who work with young people. The main focus will be on the positive and negative aspects of the respective selection tools and how each aid compares to the others in these aspects. A final comparison will be made from an analysis of all three sources for the same children's book title.
Most librarians know how to critically evaluate information sources for credibility. Applying some skepticism is just as important while using book reviews as selection aids. It is important to keep in mind the authority the reviewer has to make review recommendations. The book, Developing Library and Information Center Collections, suggests that since no one can be a master of every subject, the best reviews come from subject experts. For instance, Book Links is a publication of the American Library Association and the reviews are written by professionals. The majority of Librarians belong to the ALA, so the credibility of the information and recommendations provided by the reviews are solid. Plus, it has been published for fifteen years. It gives confidence to have one's selection choices backed up by such a source. The Library Media Connection is trusted by school media specialists and librarians because the reviews are written by peers; people who serve and instruct children from Grades K-12. The magazine gives biographical information for its editors and staff and of particular interest is their educational and professional background. School Library Journal is of commercial origin in that it is owned by Reed Business Information. However, the information on their website sets an impressive reliability standard. It has been published for 54 years. Like LMC, SLJ reviews are completed by peers of the intended audience. Each of these sources also provides an expectation of what standards the editors are looking for in potential reviews.
Library Media Connection has an extensive document of their review requirements and suggestions. They advise that the tone of the review is to be that of a peer conversing with a peer, with the assumption that the reader has not looked at the reviewed item before. The publication wants reviews that are concise, allude to the quality of a book and how it can be applied to classroom studies. The editors receive material from publishers make the decision is an item is review worthy. For consistency, review checklists are sent with the materials that are to be reviewed. Reviews are limited to 250 words and the content is to be descriptive and critically evaluative. A limitation of 150 words is given for items that merit an "additional selection" rating.
A potential reviewer for School Library Journal must be a librarian who works with children or young adults. An application must be completed and submitted along with two sample reviews. One of the sample reviews must recommend a title and the second review must suggest the title is not recommended. No guidelines are given for the reviews other than the purpose of the magazine. School Library journals states that its purpose "is to provide its subscribers with short, critical reviews of books for children and young adults for selection purposes" ( SLJ, 2007). The application asks the applicant for information concerning their specialty areas of review interest, about the reviewers professional and educational background, and if they purchase books for their library.
Book Links accepts articles and bibliographies from people who have a strong background in children's literature. The publication accepts article/bibliography submissions electronically and states that it takes 2 months to evaluate them. If the manuscript is accepted, they offer a small payment and 2 complimentary copies of the issue of the article's inclusion. Bibliographies can contain some out of print books, websites and other appropriate resources to support the article's topic.
It is important to consider how materials are selected for review. The bibliographies are compiled by the author of articles that appear in Book Links however, the publication also accepts material from publishers. Library Media Connection and School Library Journal also accept submissions from publishers. Neither of these publications provides criteria to determine how submitted materials are considered for review and why many submissions are rejected.
Another considerable aspect in using a selection aid for collections development is ease of use or navigation. The format of the resource has a large part in this as does athestic appeal. Library Media Connection has a review section of around 36 pages. The recommendation system is fairly simple in that books are either "highly recommended," "recommended," "additional selection," or "not recommended." When a book is rated as additional selection it means there are better comparable books, but the book is worth acquiring if the library has the funds. Francis Jury's criteria for selection suggests that it is OK to add a "mediocre" title if it will be read and a similar, but better title will go unread (Evans, 2005.)
Not very many reviews have a "not recommended rating." Each section will highlight one highly recommended book as a starred review, indicating that it is a must have item. Reviews are divided into categories of Special Section, Picture Books, Fiction, Nonfiction, Professional Reading and Multimedia. It is very colorful and has book cover pictures for its starred review items. There is a review index at the back of the magazine.
School Library Journals reviews do not follow a straight recommendation system. Instead, the reviews give positives and negatives about the item and it is left to the reader to make selection decisions from presented pro and cons. This publication also has an index by authors, illustrators and titles of reviewed items.
Book Links provides a format of in-depth articles that coordinate reviewed books with classroom learning outcome objectives. This is a useful feature as it provides the correlations to those making the purchasing decisions. Each article is geared to provide recommendations for materials that are useful in enriching what a student learns in this classroom. As such, all are recommended and there are no negative materials presented which makes it easy to make selections.
Services provided by online access vary. Book Links has a searchable article archive from 1990 to the present. Some of the articles are available online, but many have to be requested from the Associate editor. School Library Journal has some web exclusive content such as articles reviews, access to the print version and a searchable review archive. Search fields for the archive include ISBN, Dewey number, grade level, author/illustrator, publisher, keyword, and an option to search for only starred reviews. Library Media Connection provides access to the year's articles and reviews. The site mentions an archive, but it could not be located after a lot of searching the website.
A comparison of the review and selection sources was made using the popular children's book, The Lightning Thief, from the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan. The first obvious difference was review length and format. Book Links chose this title as a connection for exploring language arts and the information appeared in the article, "Greek Myths and the Hero's Quest." The review and summary of the book takes two of the four pages of the article. The School Library Journal and Library Media Connection reviews were much shorter in length, just giving the basic bibliographical info, synopsis and reviewer opinions. The Lightning Thief appears a starred review book in School Library Journal and is a recommended title in Library Media Connection. Another difference can be found in the recommended grade level. SLJ and Book Links suggest the book is appropriate for Grades 5-9, while LMC recommends grades 4-8 in its review.
The reviewers from all of the sources each have roles related to working with children. LMC lists the name, job title, institution and city/state of the reviewer, but SLJ and Book List just has the name, institution and city/state. Bibliographical information is just as important as content synopsis in making quick selections for book purchasing lists. The data is fairly consistent for these aids except for the number of pages in the book listed. SLJ has the book at 377 pages, while LMC and Book Links number them at 384. This may be a difference in what the publisher reports versus what the review counted as pages. Each review source give a description of the book's setting plot and the main characters and pointed out that it a fast paced, action book. Connections are made for the Greek Mythology aspect of the story. It is also suggested that there are several philosophical sidelines to the story, that readers will enjoy picking up and thinking about.
Book Links, Library Media Connection and School Library Journal each serve their intended audience well. Each has merit in the hands of a librarian tasked with making selections for a either a school library or public library's children's services department, by providing reviews that meet standards of clarity, purpose and objectivity. Whether for a classroom setting, enhancing the curriculum of a community's local school system or in assisting homeschoolers, a selector can be confident in using one or all of these aids in assisting with making their choices.